On Sunday night, the tenth victim of the stampede at the Astroworld Festival in Houston was announced. Ezra Blount was a nine-year-old Travis Scott fan pushed off his fathers shoulders and trampled by onrushing concert-goers. Hed spent several days on life support.
This should not have been the outcome of taking their son to a concert, what should have been a joyful celebration, family attorney Ben Crump said in a statement, and hes right. But it is an outcome far more frequent than anyone might expect.
As the Houston Chronicle noted after the tragedy, in the past 15 years, roughly 200 audience members have died at venues in seven countries, and another 750 have been injured. The common thread in all of these incidents was a company called Live Nation, the dominant force in event promotion, artist management, and ticketing, which by virtue of its solitary position has no real need to improve its safety record, no real risk of losing business even though it cant seem to guarantee the basic function of keeping everyone at its concerts alive.
A stampede at NRG Park at Astroworld, a general-admission venue that rewarded fans who ran to the front of the stage with the best seats, was so predictable that it happened nearly eight hours before the one that killed people. Video shows hundreds of fans busting through the VIP checkpoint and toppling the metal detectors, with the apparently one security guard manning the area powerless to stop it. More guards and mounted police arrived too late to do anything of consequence.
A similar breach of security barriers happened at the same venue two weeks before Astroworld, at a Playboi Carti concert. This isnt even the first Astroworld that featured a stampede. Barricades collapsed at the 2019 version of the event, and the resulting onrush of people sent three people to the hospital.
How did this demonstrably unsafe environment, with a setup that kettled people in between barricades around the stage that were supposed to separate VIP and regular ticket holders, go on, given all of these warnings? How were people given no means of escape when Travis Scott took the stage, causing a rush from the back, leaving those in the front of the audience of 50,000 unable to move or breathe?
Theres simply no possibility of disciplining Live Nation from a market forces standpoint for skimping on safety.
The connective tissue here is Live Nation, which handled all of these shows. It also ran the 2018 concert in Central Park where attendees reported being pummeled and assaulted amid a stampede; the 2016 Gwen Stefani concert in North Carolina where an attendee broke her leg in a jam-packed crowd; the 2016 Snoop Dogg concert where a railing gave way, sending 50 people onto hard concrete; and the concert at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, where another barricade collapsed. This doesnt count the ten Occupational Safety and Health Administration citations Live Nation fielded from 2016 to 2019, for things like falling steel beams, faulty scaffolding, and other workplace hazards. Live Nations history shows its focus on profits over public safety, said attorney Jason Kafoury to USA Today.
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It may be a bit redundant to classify these all as Live Nation concerts, because practically all major concerts in the United States are run by Live Nation, and to a lesser extent by the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG). This monopoly status explains how live events could be shut down for well over a year in the U.S. due to the pandemic, and yet a concert promoter could increase its stock price to a record high, as of early November. (The Astroworld tragedy has rocked the stock back for a minute, but thats likely temporary.)
Live Nation promoted shows for over 5,000 artists in 2019. Live Nation and AEG run practically every major music festival in America, including Astroworld. But Live Nation is more than just a promoter. Since merging with Ticketmaster in 2010, it controls 80 percent of the event ticketing market. Ancillary fees from tickets (those ubiquitous service charges) add about 27 percent to the face value of a ticket on average, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report.
In addition, Live Nation has exclusive booking rights or an equity stake in close to 300 venues around the world, and manages at least 500 major artists. This is done through management subsidiaries, some of which are listed on page 144 of Live Nations annual report, and the list goes on for 14 pages. Live Nation also runs what it calls the worlds largest music advertising network.
This is a vertically integrated operation, where Live Nation often manages the artist, runs the venue, sells the tickets, and promotes the concert all at once. Now, ask yourself just how much emphasis the company really needs to put on safety, given its dominance of the industry. If theres a tragedy, will they credibly lose any market share? Will Ticketmaster no longer be the broker for that tour? Will the venue no longer work with Live Nation acts? Theres simply no possibility of disciplining Live Nation from a market forces standpoint for skimping on safety.
Thats how you get such inadequate security staffing for the Astroworld concert. Its how you get a safety plan with no contingency for a crowd surge, even though this was a known risk, for both this artist and this venue. The safety plan was boilerplate, according to a crowd security expert interviewed by National Public Radio. The plan even counseled to refer to dead concert-goers as smurfs over radio communications.
Live Nation is expanding in Houston, with a new 5,000-seat music venue and new offices. The city of Houstons plans for increasing entertainment options and sales tax revenue are intimately connected with Live Nations presence and expansion. Will the city sanction the promoter for its security record? Its doubtful.
Meanwhile, over 100 private lawsuits have been filed against Live Nation from injured attendees and families of the victims. But Live Nation has a way around that too. Fans or families who take the refunds Live Nation is offering for the concert could give up their right to sue, according to past experience and Live Nations standard ticketing contract.
Allegedly, were supposed to have laws that prevent companies from becoming so dominant that they can ignore safety concerns, understaff events, and bounce back unaffected from tragedy. Live Nation is one of the 20 major corporate recidivists currently under a consent decree with the Justice Department, after paying a $10 million fine for hacking into a rivals computer systems to gain intelligence. The company also violated a previous consent decree in 2019 after Live Nation threatened music venues that theyd lose access to major artists unless they used Ticketmaster. The only sanction for that was an extension of the consent decree, with slight modifications.
Presumably, a concert promoter that exists as a menace to concert-goers safety would also violate at the very least common decency. Our inability to rein in consolidated corporate power has ripple effects that go far beyond the price of goods and services. The Biden administrations upstart antitrust authorities need to start factoring this into their analysis.